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December 14, 2017

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College football by the odds: Vegas picks and preview of Week 3

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AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) throws the ball against Auburn during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 14-6.

If Clemson keeps at its current pace, the Tigers may eradicate the notion of championship hangover in college football.

Clemson has shown no ill effects coming out of last year’s College Football Playoff triumph, winning and covering in each of its first two games. It hasn’t been that easy for teams in their position recently.

Only three teams in the last 10 years have followed a championship season with a winning against the spread record the next year — and all three were Alabama, the one program where performance fluctuation norms don’t seem to apply. There were reasons to figure Clemson would fall more in line with 2014 Florida State and 2015 Ohio State and become defending champions that bettors consistency lose money backing.

Like those teams, the Tigers came into the season with heightened betting lines after the public didn’t shy to pay a premium. Unlike those teams, they had few experience after losing six players to the NFL Draft and returning only five offensive starters.

The offense, led by junior quarterback Kelly Bryant, eased concerns in Week 1 by putting up nearly 700 yards in a 56-3 win over Kent State as 38-point favorites. It was a larger win than last year's championship team ever had over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.

The Tigers produced again in a 14-6 victory over Auburn as 6-point favorites in Week 2, moving the ball better than the final score suggests. The defense was the real standout for the second week in a row, and currently leads the nation in giving up 1.9 yards per play.

That figure will surely balloon this week taking on defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s Louisville on the road. It’s one of Clemson’s toughest games of the year, but the first two weeks have proven that it won’t be made harder by any sort of championship complacency.

Check below to find a betting preview and pick for Clemson vs. Louisville, as well as the nine other biggest games of the week. Extra picks are also provided. The blog went a mediocre 8-8 last week to bring the season total to 18-16. Lines are the best currently available in Las Vegas on the chosen side, and picks are labeled in one of three confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses.

    • UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen (3) passes the ball against Hawaii during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. UCLA won 56-23.

      UCLA minus-3 at Memphis, over/under: 70.5; 9 a.m. on ABC

      There’s nothing like a wake-up call in the form of a decision for hundreds of thousands of dollars at risk.

      Bookmakers will want to sound an alarm if UCLA rolls over Memphis, as the vast majority of gamblers are banking on. Ninety percent of the money on this game came on the Bruins early in the week.

      There’s an expectation bigger bettors will bail bookmakers out of their liability with wagers on the Tigers, but it hasn’t happened yet. Memphis does have some advantages beyond the obvious playing at home in its own time zone.

      The Tigers have an even more experienced team than the Bruins including their own veteran quarterback in senior Riley Ferguson to match UCLA junior Josh Rosen. Memphis also had an extra week to prepare after Hurricane Irma canceled its scheduled Week 2 game at UCF.

      The Tigers didn’t look the part of the second-choice to win the American Athletic Conference — they were 5-to-1 coming into the season — in Week 1, though. They toiled to beat Louisiana-Monroe 37-29 as 28-point favorites, with Ferguson completing 10 of 25 passes for 97 yards and an interception.

      Lean: Under 70.5 points

    • Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph looks to throw against South Alabama during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, in Mobile, Ala.

      Oklahoma State minus-14 at Pittsburgh, over/under: 66; 9 a.m. on ESPN

      Not all drastic line moves are inherently unnecessary.

      Take Oklahoma State, for example. Based on the Cowboys’ first two weeks, they might have been the College Football Playoff contender that everyone, including the betting market, missed.

      Now the odds are scrambling to catch up. The Cowboys only posted at minus-3 in this spot earlier in the summer, before re-opening at minus-11 earlier in the week and immediately getting bet up.

      Behind quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington, whom both ranked in the top 10 in yardage at their respective positions last season, Oklahoma State has covered with ease in each of its first two weeks. The Cowboys beat Tulsa 59-24 as 28-point favorites, before blowing out South Alabama 59-24 as 19.5-point favorites.

      Pittsburgh has failed to cover in each of its two games, salvaging a push as a closing 19-point underdog in a 33-14 loss at Penn State last week after escaping Youngstown State with an overtime win.

      Unlike Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh is breaking in an entirely new core led by USC transfer Max Browne at quarterback. The Panthers have started slow, gaining only 4.2 yards per play.

      Oklahoma State has nearly doubled that production, gaining 8.1 yards per play through two weeks.

      Guess: Pittsburgh plus-14

    • Florida defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga (92) and linebacker Vosean Joseph (11) set up for a play during the second half of an NCAA college football game against North Texas in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. Florida won 32-0.

      Tennessee plus-5 at Florida, over/under: 49.5; 12:30 p.m. on CBS

      Perhaps no pair of power-program rivals looked as pitiful as Florida and Tennessee for stretches of their Week 1 game.

      Tennessee at least turned it around; Florida never did. The Volunteers capitalized on Georgia Tech miscues to come back and win 42-41 as 3-point favorites in Atlanta despite giving up more than 600 yards while gaining less than 400 themselves.

      Tennessee’s relatively anemic offense, led by junior quarterback Quinten Dormady and junior running back John Kelly, looked explosive compared to Florida’s. The Gators couldn’t even gain 200 yards in a 33-17 loss to Michigan as 4.5-point underdogs where they juggled between quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Malik Zaire, and scored their only touchdowns on defense.

      Franks, who won the job out in the preseason, will get a second start against Tennessee, and Florida is expected to return the 10 players suspended for running a scam with university funds. Tennessee may have an advantage in that it got extra repetitions in a Week 2 game, albeit a 42-7 win over mismatched Indiana State as 37.5-point favorites.

      Most bettors appear to be staying away from the game, with the line having stayed the same and action reportedly split on both sides.

      Lean: Florida minus-5

    • Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton hypes up the crowd before the game against Fresno State in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

      Colorado State plus-28.5 at Alabama, over/under: 53.5; 4 p.m. on ESPN2

      Welcome to the Mountain West Conference, Alabama.

      The Crimson Tide oddly host a Mountain West opponent for the second straight week. Alabama coach Nick Saban has a reputation for experimenting with personnel early and showing mercy late against smaller-conference and Football Championship Subdivision Conference opponents, and the story checks out by the betting numbers.

      Alabama is just 9-19 against the spread versus non-power five conference opposition since Saban arrived, including 3-11 over the last five years. The average spread on all those games, however, is 37 points.

      Colorado State is lower because it’s better than almost all of its forerunners. The Rams were a 5-to-2 third choice to win the Mountain West in the preseason, and have done nothing to suggest that was unwarranted during a 2-1 straight-up, 1-2 against the spread start.

      Even in their lone loss, 17-3 to Colorado as 3-point underdogs, the Rams moved the ball well in racking up a yardage advantage but succumbed to turnovers and not capitalizing on scoring chances. Colorado State coach Mike Bobo may have pulled a Saban in letting up on Abilene Christian last week, as the Rams won 38-10 as 43-point favorites.

      Like past games against teams like Colorado State, Alabama has more than enough talent to cover. The question is whether it will care to secure a blowout.

      Guess: Alabama minus-28.5

    • In this Sept. 10, 2016, file photo, Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins is sacked by LSU defensive end Arden Key (49) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La. Key has been cleared to come back from shoulder surgery and play Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at Mississippi State.

      LSU minus-7 at Mississippi State, over/under: 51.5; 4 p.m. on ESPN

      Through two weeks, almost no defenses in the nation have been as suffocating as these two.

      New LSU coach Ed Orgeron has lived up to his billing as a defensive mastermind, as his team held BYU and Chattanooga to less than 4 yards per play in a pair of wins and covers. The Tigers already have eight sacks, including 3.5 by senior Corey Thompson, and that’s without the nation’s top edge rusher, Arden Key, who returns from injury this week.

      Defense hampered Mississippi State over the last couple years, but coach Dan Mullen brought in former Georgia and Louisville coordinator Todd Grantham to remedy the situation this season, and the move has paid early dividends. The Bulldogs won and covered even easier than the Tigers in their first two weeks, against Louisiana Tech and Charleston Southern while giving up 2.7 yards per play.

      Mississippi State’s numbers are somewhat skewed by the soon-to-be legendary Louisiana Tech blooper, but it does look much improved. Sophomore nose tackle Jeffrey Simmons has led the effort up front, and got rewarded for it with two touchdowns — a blocked punt return and a fumble return — against Louisiana Tech.

      The Bulldogs have covered in three straight in the series, but Orgeron’s fist Tigers squad looks a cut above the program's recent teams.

      Guess: LSU minus-7

    • Kansas State return specialist D.J. Reed (2) dodges a tackle by Central Arkansas' Lester Wells (17) for a 96-yard kickoff return during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Manhattan, Kan., Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. Reed was finally tackled on the four-yard-line.

      Kansas State minus-4 at Vanderbilt, over/under: 47.5; 4:30 p.m. on ESPNU

      Both these programs are a testament to the value of sticking with a coach, albeit in extremely different circumstances.

      The career of Kansas State coach Bill Snyder continues to marvel, both on the field and in the sports book. Now in his 26th season, Snyder sits at 168-117 against the spread.

      Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason has a long way to catch up at 21-18 against the spread early in his fourth season in Nashville. But even that’s somewhat of a coup considering where he was two years ago.

      The Commodores struggled in Mason’s first two seasons after James Franklin turned around the program, leaving some to call for the job of the former Jim Harbaugh disciple. They’re seemingly now being rewarded for never dignifying those cries, as Vanderbilt reached a bowl game last year and has its best team in Mason’s tenure this year.

      Vanderbilt has only given up six points in two games so far this season, with the defense emerging behind a linebacking corps starring Emmanuel Smith and Charles Wright. Kansas State has been just as solid in two blowout wins and covers, which has been no surprise to the sharp bettors who backed them in the preseason.

      Snyder has one of his most experienced teams, and he’s a coach that doesn’t need any extra advantage.

      Guess: Vanderbilt plus-4

    • Louisville's Dez Fitzpatrick jumps while celebrating with teammates following his touchdown against North Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.

      Clemson minus-3 at Louisville, over/under: 57; 5 p.m. on ABC

      Clemson’s blistering start to the season is evidently worth three points on the betting line.

      This game was a pick’em before the year, but ballooned when it reopened earlier this week. It’s not as if Louisville looks to have suffered from any drop-off, though.

      The Cardinals did get into an unexpected battle in a 35-28 win over Purdue as 25.5-point favorites in Week 1, but much of that was due to bad breaks. They looked fully back to themselves in winning 47-35 at North Carolina as 10-point favorites last week.

      Defending Heisman champion Lamar Jackson has returned to the top of national stats boards with more 1,000 total yards and eight touchdowns to no interceptions. Freshman Dez Kirkpatrick and junior Jaylen Smith have filled the void left by Louisville’s top three receivers from last year graduating.

      Jackson went for 457 yards and three touchdowns in one of last year’s most memorable games, a 42-36 loss at Clemson. The Tigers went into that game as 1-point underdogs, meaning the betting market has radically revalued both teams.

      It’s somewhat rare to see a team laying points on the road against a divisional rival it was a home underdog against the season before.

      Play: Louisville plus-3

    • Southern California's Deontay Burnett, center, catches a touchdown pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Los Angeles.

      Texas plus-16.5 at USC, over/under: 67; 5:30 p.m. on Fox

      The consensus was that the magic Tom Herman produced at Houston didn’t translate to Texas after Maryland upset the Longhorns in the coach’s debut.

      The reality is that there hasn’t been a situation to truly gauge if Herman carried over his most profound mysterious ability. That test will come Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

      Herman was actually a pedestrian 8-12-1 against the spread as a favorite with the Cougars. It’s as an underdog where he made his mark, going 5-0 not only against the spread but also straight-up when taking points.

      He might need every bit of “pixie dust” against a USC team that validated its status as the most bet-on national championship contender in a 42-24 win over Stanford as 4-point favorites last week. The Trojans had a trio of skill players — running backs Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr, and wide receiver Deontay Burnett — rack up more than 100 yards on a tough Cardinals’ defense.

      Texas surrendered that type of production — 482 total yards — to a much less skilled Maryland roster. The Longhorns are also currently rotating between three quarterbacks in sophomore Shane Buechele, freshman Sam Ehlinger and junior Jerrod Heard.

      Buechele was injured against Maryland but could return and still not start over Ehlinger, who led an angry Texas effort in a 56-0 victory over San Jose State as 26.5-point favorites last week.

      Play: Texas plus-16.5

    • San Diego State Aztecs fullback Nick Bawden runs the ball against the South Alabama Jaguars during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, in Mobile, Ala. South Alabama defeated San Diego State 42-24.

      Stanford minus-9.5 at San Diego State, over/under: 46.5; 7:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network

      San Diego State was expected to take a step back after losing a large chunk of players that helped it win back-to-back Mountain West Conference championships. So far, there’s been no sign of that happening.

      The Aztecs have used the same combination of stout defense and strong running game to win their first two contests, including an upset 30-20 win at Arizona State last week. Senior running back Rashaad Penny leads the nation among players with only two games with 413 rushing yards — and he’s also returned a kick for a touchdown.

      Stanford running back Bryce Love is one of Penny’s closest competitors with 340 rushing yards after going for 160 in last week’s losing effort at USC. This game might come down to which running back can navigate sometimes impenetrable defensive fronts.

      Local products Noble Hall and Randy Ricks have helped San Diego State limit opponents to less than 2 yards per rush this season, while Stanford has a ferocious linebacking corps featuring Bobby Okereke and Peter Kalambayi.

      San Diego State has gone 3-4 straight-up, 4-3 against the spread versus the Pac-12 in coach Rocky Long’s tenure, but has lost in four straight final non-conference games before league play begins.

      Lean: Stanford minus-9.5

    • Utah running back Zack Moss, bottom, is stopped just shy of the end zone by California defensive tackle James Looney on the last play of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, in Berkeley, Calif. California won 28-23.

      Ole Miss minus-3.5 at California, over/under: 72; 7:30 p.m. on ESPN

      If these teams ultimately succeed this season, it’s likely going to be because their offenses are better than expected.

      If these teams ultimately fail this season, it’s likely going to be because their defenses are as a poor as expected. Fitting with usual college football custom, one of the highest point totals on the board is saved for last tonight.

      Ole Miss and California have both shown they’ll have no trouble moving the ball. Ole Miss sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson has thrown for 918 yards, the most in the nation out of those who have played two games.

      California’s big-play creator is dual running and receiving threat Patrick Laird, who already has four touchdowns and three plays of more than 50 yards.

      It’s easy to envision the two adding to their gaudy totals against each other’s teams.

      Ole Miss has given up a mediocre 5.5 yards per play despite playing Tennessee-Martin and South Alabama. California’s schedule may have been a tad tougher — it’s beaten North Carolina and Weber State — but not enough to explain away surrendering 5.9 yards per play as anything more than bad defense.

      Guess: Ole Miss minus-3.5

    • In this Dec. 5, 2015, file photo, Baylor helmets on shown the field after an NCAA college football game in Waco, Texas.

      Extra points

      Baylor plus-14.5 at Duke A couple weeks ago, Baylor would have been the more likely team laying two touchdowns in this spot. There’s no getting around how horrendous the Bears have played in losses to Liberty and UTSA, but they could be sparked by a switch to sophomore quarterback Zach Smith.

      Coastal Carolina minus-1.5 at UAB Going to keep betting against the Blazers until they drastically improve, or bookmakers adjust enough to account for the fact that they’re not yet equipped to compete on the Football Bowl Subdivision level upon restarting their program. Coastal Carolina, by contrast, has worked to get up to the major level for the last several years, with the roster to show for it.

      Northern Illinois plus-14 at Nebraska First two weeks have taken a lot of Nebraska, which battled until the final seconds in both a loss at Oregon and a win over Arkansas State. An improved Northern Illinois squad had a breeze last week in blowing out Eastern Illnois, and outplayed Boston College despite losing by a field goal in week 1.

      Wyoming plus-14 vs. Oregon Cowboys quietly have one of the best home-field advantages, with War-Memorial Stadium sitting at a national-high 7,215 feet. They’ll be amped to host their first major conference opponent there in several years, and luckily, it’s one with a defense flimsy enough to make it a game.

      Idaho plus-20.5 at Western Michigan One solid performance at USC doesn’t mean Western Michigan has pulled itself out of a rebuilding year after the departure of coach P.J. Fleck. The Broncos showed they still have their problems in a beatdown at Michigan State last week that was far more lopsided than the 28-14 final score indicated. They shouldn’t lay this many points to any team.

    Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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